In 2015, malignant pleural mesothelioma interrupted the 57-year Thanksgiving Day family tradition that Marian Levin loved so much.
It broke her heart, but it didn’t break her. Instead, it sparked a passion to resume hosting the annual feast that always includes a table filled with delectable dishes she personally makes from scratch.
“I was really crushed the year I couldn’t host Thanksgiving. It was one of the most traumatic things,” she said. “It was always my way of showing love for my family. Instead, I was stuck in the hospital that day with a feeding tube, sucking on a sponge.”
Levin had undergone pleurectomy and decortication surgery — one of the most aggressive mesothelioma treatments — a few days before Thanksgiving. She had to leave the meal prep work, with specific instructions, to other family members.
“One of the grandkids told me later, ‘Granny, please don’t get sick again. Dinner was all screwed up without you. It was so bad. We couldn’t even eat the stuffing,’” Levin said with a laugh. “I knew then, I had to get well.”
Levin, a retired school teacher in suburban Philadelphia, resumed hosting again in 2016, rekindling a lifetime of Thanksgiving Day memories.
The tradition began when she was a newlywed just learning where the kitchen was. Now it includes a grandchild ready to graduate from the United States Air Force Academy, who remembers what he once ate from the highchair.
The chocolate mousse cake, the pumpkin cheese pie, the Liam French-style peas, the cranberry sauce, the potato/cheese/mushroom casserole and her famous turkey stuffing are just a few of the homemade delights Levin has made for decades.
“I can’t do the cooking all at once anymore. I don’t have the strength now. I have to do it in stages, but I still get it all done,” she said. “And it has to be homemade. Years ago, I fudged a little and bought one pie from a store, and my daughter from California says, ‘Mom, I didn’t travel 3,000 miles to eat an apple pie from Costco.’”
Surviving mesothelioma hasn’t been easy. But with help from husband, Max, days like Thanksgiving have made it well worth the fight.
So have days like her 80th birthday party, when her four children and four grandchildren all attended, traveling from around the country to celebrate the occasion.
“To have them all here at a party that I never thought I’d be at, showed me how lucky and fortunate I’ve been,” she said. “I wake up every morning now and say, ‘Hey, I’m still here and still functioning. That’s a pretty good place to be.’”
The initial complications of her surgery in 2015 were awful. Chemotherapy after surgery was dreadful, an experience she has vowed never to repeat.
Catching her breath today can be challenging, even after a leisurely stroll. Lingering nerve damage from the surgery has made pain a constant companion.
Yet, she sees only positives. Her follow-up CT scans are still coming back clean.
She is grateful for living just 30-minutes away from the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania. There, her surgery was performed by Dr. Sunil Singhal, and her care has continued under oncologist Dr. Evan Alley.
“Most everything physical is gone for me, but I’ve never felt sorry for myself, never had that ‘why me?’ attitude,” she said. “I do other things now. What was, was. And this is now. I go day by day. Some days are better than others, but they’re all good because I’m still here.”
Her days as an always-on-the-go dynamo are over, but she still smiles at those memories.
With her summers free as a school teacher, she traveled the world — sometimes with her husband, sometimes with a daughter, and sometimes by herself. Her pace rarely slowed.
Her stories span the globe. She’s been to China, India and Morocco. She’s been through Japan, Thailand, New Zealand and Australia. She has visited Germany, Greece, England, Spain and Belgium. Uruguay and Argentina were nice, too.
“It was so much fun, so educational, meeting real people from all over the world,” she said. “What I learned is that people everywhere are basically the same. Everybody, everywhere, just wants what’s best for their children. You smile, show friendliness, and people everywhere respond.”
The travel bug started in college with a study-abroad program. It never ended. She didn’t go on scheduled tours, either. She often went on foot, hiking and biking her way across cities and countryside. She loved the experience of different cultures.
She retired early to travel more.
“It’s been an eventful life I’ve lived,” she said. “No regrets.”
Much of her time now is spent reading. She still exercises in the pool. She walks to the post office, almost a mile away. She loves to play Mahjongg, and she still loves engaging others.
“You can make yourself miserable with this disease, but if you do, it just makes those around you miserable,” she said. “That’s not me. Surrounding yourself with positive people really helps.”
Her last extended trip, to Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria early in 2015, was when she realized something was seriously wrong. The walks were getting more difficult. Her energy was down. She fell.
She had been diagnosed with pleurisy, an inflammation of the tissue that lines the lungs, a few years before. The fluid around her lungs had been drained three times, and nothing more serious was uncovered.
The fourth time led to an exploratory surgery, which led to her startling diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma. The rare cancer is caused by exposure to asbestos and has no definitive cure.
“I worked in schools where there probably was asbestos, but I had no idea where. They say it can be up to 70 years after exposure before mesothelioma is diagnosed. I just wish it had been another 70 years for me.”
She still expects to be in Colorado Springs for her grandson’s graduation ceremony. After all, she was there for his initial visit. She and Max have plans to reach Jamaica soon, spending time on a beach where she has never been.
And of course, she has every intention of hosting Thanksgiving dinner again in November.
“It’s always been my favorite holiday. Seeing everyone enjoy what I make is wonderful,” she said. “I’m not ready to give that up yet.”